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Nobel Prize Winner Thomas Schelling

I’ve changed addresses 10 times since I graduated from college. And each time I’ve moved, I’ve looked at the battered old box of college notebooks and debated whether it was time to throw the box out. After all, it has been more than 15 years and the box has never once been opened.

Thomas Schelling winning the Nobel prize in economics finally gave me a reason to open the box. My sophomore year in college I took Econ 1030 from Schelling. I believe the course was entitled something like “Conflict and Strategy.” I still have vivid memories of the course. A crew-cut Schelling paced back and forth across the stage (never with any notes, if I remember correctly), spewing forth story after story that illuminated the application of simple game theory concepts in every day life. The pauses between the stories were long enough that I had the impression he was coming up with them on the spot, although my own experience as a teacher makes me think otherwise.

For me, this first introduction to game theory was inspirational. For someone who thinks strategically, or would like to think strategically, the basic tools of game theory are essential. The beauty of Schelling’s class was how easy the math was and how readily it applied to real world settings. The topics of the course were basic: the Prisoner’s Dilemma in lecture 1, Schelling’s own “tipping point” model in lectures 2&3, the tragedy of the commons and public goods games after that, then commitment devices, credible and non-credible threats, and the strategy and tactics of controlling one’s own behavior.

(For those who are unaware, Schelling coined the term “Tipping Point” thirty years before Gladwell made it popular.)

Any economist could have taught the subjects in the class, but no one would have taught it like Schelling did. Each concept was accompanied by a barrage of examples. My notes are so poorly done — I would write down only a few key words — that now I can only guess at what the story was behind the words: when Rhodesia came Zimbabwe, VHS vs. Beta, the quality of play in bridge leagues, choosing colleges, Dulles vs. National airport, Bear Bryant should not have voted for USC, good weatherman takes fair bets, tailgating, Landon vs. Roosevelt, randomly flushing the toilet, etc.

I even remember attempting to put the lessons Schelling was teaching me immediately into practice. People who know me know that I can fall asleep anywhere, anytime. I would guess that I slept through some portion of 90 percent of my college classes. So when Schelling taught us about commitment, I decided I would start sitting in the front row of class as a way of committing myself not to sleep. Unfortunately, the urge to sleep often proved all too powerful. If Schelling were to remember me, it would be as the only kid in the first row who always fell asleep.

To my mind, Schelling represents the very best of game theory. He was a pioneer in the field, a man of ideas. Unfortunately for game theory, the simple ideas that are so alluring were quickly mined. What followed was less interesting. Modern game theory has become extremely mathematical, notation heavy, and removed from everyday life. Many of my colleagues would not agree with me, but I think game theory has failed to deliver on its enormous initial promise. I’m not the only one who feels this way. I was recently speaking with a prominent game theorist. He told me that if he knew what he knew and he were just getting started in the profession today, no way would he be a game theorist.

Schelling was an early inspiration to me. His course and writings were one of the big influences pushing me towards economics. My approach to economics shares much with his approach. I was saying this to one of my colleagues last year, who happened to run into Schelling and told Schelling he should count me as one of his students. Schelling was unmoved.

(For more on Schelling, Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution wrote this.)